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UK Politics

Petition website change.org has revolutionised the way activists campaign

The campaign site's British office has been open for a year and, despite having just a handful of staff, has made politicians - and tabloid editors - quake. Will Coldwell meets them

When Stacey Stafford found out that her disabled son was going to be taken out of his special needs school, she was close to despair. She had battled for a year and a half to persuade Glasgow City Council to send him to the school that she felt was best for him, fighting for a court order to gain him a place at a centre for children with cerebral palsy. Now it was in jeopardy.

"It was a horrible and stressful experience for me," she says. "I was facing another battle and I just felt angry." This time, however, she tried something different. She started a petition on change.org.

Within days, it had reached 4,000 signatures. Then the media started calling. Less than two weeks later, and with a total of 7,692 names on the petition, the council had backed down. "It was so quick," says Stafford. "I started it on a whim. I just wanted to make it uncomfortable for them. I didn't know what was going to happen."

Stories such as Stafford's stream thick and fast from the digital campaigns site. Change.org launched in the UK just over a year ago, having been founded in the US in 2007 by Stanford graduate and wannabe-investment banker turned do-gooder Ben Rattray. Rattray set up the site to help activists and as a way of mobilising people for change. Speaking to CNN Money, he explained that petitions were the simplest way of empowering people.

"Historically, it's one of the oldest tools in advocacy," he said. "It goes back hundreds of years to publicly add your name in support with others for change. What's different now is it's just dramatically easier than ever before to start petitions and spread them through social media."

Dramatically, cosmically, powerfully easier than laboriously collecting thousands of pen-and-ink signatures on paper before delivering them in a box to the powerful, as campaigners once had to do. The British version of the site has just hit a landmark three million users (there are 45 million worldwide). And it seems to work.

Every week, two change.org petitions in the UK claim a victory, whether they're lowbrow – there's currently someone petitioning Warner Brothers to remove Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne in its forthcoming Batman film – or more socially aware – the man wanting to convince the International Olympic Committee to strip Sochi of the 2014 Winter Games.

From a small office by Old Street in east London, change.org has been a catalytic force behind many of the stories that have dominated the news agenda over the past 12 months. Caroline Criado-Perez's campaign to have the Bank of England put a woman on the new £10 note could perhaps be described as its flagship success, gaining 36,000 signatures and spilling into a national debate on the representation of women in the establishment, and then again into a highly emotive discussion about sexist abuse online.

Similarly, the current No More Page Three campaign, which has been championed by MPs such as Caroline Lucas, has more than 118,000 signatures and continues to make national news. Lucy Holmes, who started the petition, describes the site as "an incredibly powerful tool". "It's not just a petition site," she says. "Everyone who signs becomes an integral part of the campaign because the tools change.org offers mean we can update supporters, organise mini protests and read the reasons why people signed that petition."

The change.org team, which boasts people who have worked for the likes of 38Degrees, Oxfam and other high-profile charities and NGOs, is clear about what makes a successful campaign. "Petitions are just the start," says UK campaigns director Brie Rogers Lowery. "They have to have a compelling story, a tangible ask and be mobilising the people who sign it. Rarely is a petition just going to win on its own."

The team members act as facilitators, promoting petitions at the right moments to catch the media, and helping those who want to start petitions to frame them in the most effective way. They follow their online stats closely, sending out sample emails to gauge which petitions are catching. Their keen editorial eye helps generate campaigns that not only attract the attention of the media, but also engage the public who then go on to spread the petition through social media.

The backdrop to the site's rise in the UK is one of an increasing sense of disenfranchisement among voters after years of centre-ground politics, exacerbated by a coalition government grappling with a recession. Party politics seem increasingly irrelevant, leaving a space for passionate, single-issue campaigning to flourish.

Curiously, considering the site is intended to be for those without an existing platform, MP Nicola Blackwood started a petition on the site, calling for the Prime Minister to take action to stop child sexual exploitation online. Whether change.org will try to prevent MPs and other people in positions of power using it to start petitions in the future is uncertain, but for now the team sees it as an endorsement.

"The campaigns that really take off are about issues that affect people rather than political ideologies," says Lowery. "They cross political boundaries." Change.org's employees see themselves as brokers of social justice who amplify the frustration of otherwise voiceless individuals. When reacting to a news event, the team actively encourages individuals who may be affected by an issue to start a petition.

For example, a petition by 16-year-old Esha Marwaha asking Michael Gove to keep climate change on the curriculum resulted in her being invited for a meeting with the Department of Education. Subsequently, Gove dropped his plans to remove the subject.

"The companies and politicians that are going to be the most successful are the ones that respond," says Lowery. "If they back away, it's not going to be good for democracy and it's not going to be good for their customer base [or voters]. But if they engage with them and have a two-way dialogue, then that can be a fantastic opportunity."

To encourage this dialogue, change.org has developed a way for frequently lobbied individuals and organisations to create their own profile on the site. The "Decision Makers" feature is due to launch imminently, something the team hopes will lead to more victories, quicker responses and a shift in culture from those at the top, who currently are less likely to respond unless the issue has reached crisis level.

Richard Elsen has spent his career helping individuals and companies who find themselves at the wrong end of PR crises. Founder of the Byfield Consultancy and former deputy head of the Labour Party's "Rebuttal and Attack Unit" for the 1997 election, Elsen is well versed in polarised and aggressive campaigning. Change.org, he says, has altered how corporations and politicians react to crises. "Their petitions create noise that is difficult and dangerous to ignore," he says. "By being highly visible [they] have the potential in themselves to force rapid action, which often is uncomfortable for companies or politicians being targeted."

The petition that perhaps caused the most discomfort for a politician occurred this spring, calling for Ian Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week for a year. With almost 500,000 signatures, the simple petition forced a public debate about welfare reform on terms that were visibly embarrassing for the Work and Pensions Secretary. The petition was spawned from a Twitter exchange – musician Dom Aversano was discussing starting one on the No 10 site until John Coventry, change.org's communications director, suggested he use theirs instead. Within days, Aversano was giving television interviews.

"Change.org gives a voice to those who traditionally won't be considered part of the media," he says. "I don't see it as a solution to all problems, but it's taught me to try. If you do something that resonates with people it can be limitless."